The Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh is a hive of activity with plenty for visitors to do, from delving into the country’s turbulent history to exploring its rich culture and heritage. Elsewhere, must-dos include sampling the region’s unique culinary flavours and taking in the sights during a city stroll.
The Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda
Holding a special place in the hearts of Cambodians, the Royal Palace serves as the King’s residence, a venue for court ceremony and a symbol of the Kingdom. The palace compound is also home to the Silver Pagoda, a prominent temple from the popular riverside named for its gleaming silver floor. Guests can stroll through the manicured gardens and discover the ornate temples, libraries and galleries inside the palace grounds.
A tranquil retreat in the center of the capital’s hustle and bustle, Wat Phnom is a small park with an active pagoda perched on top of a small hill. The sacred site is popular with Cambodians, and visitors can respectfully explore the temple for US$1. But watch out for the rogue monkeys, which have been known to attack humans for their food.
Riverside, or Sisowath Quay, is best visited at dusk when locals descend on the promenade looking out across the Tonle Sap and Mekong rivers to take part in acrobatics, play games or to simply hang out. Soak up the sights from one of the many restaurants and bars lining the strip, or join a boat trip departing from the north end of the stretch.
Choeung Ek Genocidal Center
The Buddhist stupa holding more than 5,000 skulls exhumed from the killing field at Choeung Ek. Between 1975 and 1979, the Pol Pot-led Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia, with an estimated two million people killed or dying from starvation and exhaustion. Almost 9,000 bodies were discovered at the mass graves of Choeung Ek, more commonly known as the Killing Fields. Now serving as a memorial, the site features a Buddhist stupa filled with more than 8,000 human skulls. Visitors can also walk around the exhumed graves and learn more through a headset-guided walking tour.
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum
Cells that held political prisoners at Tuol Sleng, also known as S-21. Based in the centre of Phnom Penh, this former high school was transformed into a political prisoners’ camp known as Security Prison 21 (S-21) during the Khmer Rouge reign. Only seven prisoners survived, while many others were tortured and killed there, or sent to their deaths at Choeung Ek. Much of Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum has been left as the prison, which was found in 1979 when the Vietnamese army liberated Phnom Penh; the blood-splattered walls, tiny brick cells and abandoned torture tools offer a sobering insight into the brutal regime.
National Museum of Cambodia
Located next to the palace, the National Museum of Cambodia is home to more than 5,000 artefacts dating back to the ancient Angkorian period. Various rooms display a range of rare statues, lingas and other items, including a legendary statue of the Leper King from Siem Reap and a giant 11th-century bronze Vishnu. It is a great precursor to a trip to Angkor Wat. Multilingual tour guides are also available for visitors.
Also known as Silk Island, Koh Dach is approximately an hour’s journey from the capital, including a short ferry ride. Guests can learn about Cambodian silk weaving by visiting the weaving villages dotted across the islands, where they can watch workers use handlooms to spin silk while others dye materials to create stunning designs.
Markets form a daily part of life in Cambodia, and there are plenty to choose from. Central Market, or Phsar Thmei, is a unique Art Deco interpretation of a traditional market, with a well-designed dome forming the centrepiece. Stalls sell everything from jewellery, gems and trinkets to homeware, food, souvenirs and handicrafts.
For evening entertainment, bustling Bassac Lane is a must-do. Tucked away off Street 308, it’s only for the in-the-know cool crowd. The small avenue is home to a series of quirky bars and eateries, with a central outdoor square that often hosts live music – Harry’s and Hangar 44 are well worth a visit.
Cambodian cooking class
Learn how to cook like a local with a half- or full-day class through the renowned Frizz restaurant. Kicking off with a tour of the local market to buy ingredients, budding chefs will then learn how to create a range of typical Cambodian dishes, including fish amok (curry with banana leaves), and mango and sticky rice pudding. Classes are held on a shaded rooftop terrace overlooking the city.
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